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BF #6: Walt Bellamy

Aside from hearing the guy's name here and there, I really didn't know anything about Walt Bellamy....until deciding to write this post. So why is he ranked #6 on the Bullets Forever list of all-time Bullets/Wizards (and Packers/Zephyrs)? Well, the fact that he was the franchise's first ever draft pick (#1 overall in '61), had one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time, and led the team in scoring and rebounding for the first four years of it's participation in the NBA would be a good start.

The 6'11" big man got his beginnings in the segregated South at J.T. Barber High School in New Bern, North Carolina. In 1958, when black players at major colleges were still a rarity, Bellamy headed to Bloomington to become part of the rich basketball tradition at the University of Indiana [correction: Indiana University]. At the time, Indiana was the closest school to the South which would accept black athletes, making the decision to take the 800 mile trip North relatively easy for Bellamy.

Bellamy would lead the Hoosiers in scoring in each of his three seasons on the varsity squad (remember, freshman did not play back then) with 17.4, 22.4, and 21.8 points per game in each of those seasons respectively. He also was the leading team rebounder during that time (15.2, 13.5, and 17.8 boards in seasons 1, 2, and 3).

In his junior year, he played on the men's basketball team in the 1960 Rome Olympics. The team, which went 8-0, winning by the average margin of 42.4 points per game, bested Brazil, 90-63, for the gold medal. That team featured 10 future NBA players, including the likes of Jerry West, Oscar Robinson, and Jerry Lucas, and was coached by the famed Pete Newell.

Bellamy left Indiana twice being named an All-American. The 33 rebounds he recorded in his final collegiate game still remains a Big Ten record. When the Conseco Fieldhouse opened in Indianapolis in 1999, Bellamy was honored as being one of the 50 greatest players in the history of the Hoosier state.

In 1961, the Chicago Packers joined the NBA as an expansion team, which pushed the league to nine franchises. Bellamy, taken first overall, had a stellar rookie season. He averaged 31.6 ppg (second to Wilt Chamberlain's 50.4), 19.0 boards (3rd in the league), led the NBA with a 51.9 FG%, and was third in the league, after Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, with a 26.3 player efficiency rating. Pretty good, especially considering that one of Bellamy's first NBA coaches, Bob Leonard, once said, "Walt wasn't a highly motivated player, night in and night out. He'd have some great games and then he'd have one where he didn't show up. But he was an excellent player."

The Packers would finish an NBA worst 18-62 in their inaugural season, but Bellamy's play would net him an appearance in the All-Star game, where he posted 23 points and 17 boards for the winning Western Conference squad. He was also named the 1962 Rookie of the Year.

In the following year, the Packers changed their name to the Zephyrs. What's a Zephyr you ask? Well, it's the wind, derived from Zephyrus, god of the west wind, and Chicago is the Windy it makes sense. Bellamy continued to put up great numbers, 5th in the league in scoring (27.9), 3rd in rebounds (16.4), and second in FG% (52.7%).

The Zephyrs featured Don Nelson as a rookie and Terry Dischinger, who would win the '62-63 Rookie of the Year award. The team slightly improved in their second season to 25-55 (17-17 at home). And better yet, they were no longer the worst team in the NBA, that title belonged to the New York Knickerbockers. Bellamy went on to be an All-Star in his second season, but wouldn't fare so well in the game, scoring two points in 14 minutes of action.

The 1963-64 season brought change as the franchise moved to Baltimore, and since Baltimore is not as windy, the team name was changed to "Bullets," taking that of a previously failed B-More franchise. Nearby Charm City, there was a factory which cast ammunition during WWII, so using "Bullets" seemed appropriate at the time.

In addition to the move, the Bullets vastly improved themselves in the draft. They took current Nets President and GM, Rod Thorn, an All-American out of West Virginia, with the second overall pick in the '63 draft. Longtime Bullet great, Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson (BF #10) was taken out of the University of Idaho with the 10th overall pick (2nd in the 2nd round).

Both Thorn and Johnson would named to the '63-64 All-Rookie team. Gone was Don Nelson, whose contract was sold to the Lakers, and added was Kevin Loughery (BF #18) who was received in a trade with Detroit six games into the season in exchange for Larry Staverman. [Talk about a great trade, Staverman would play 20 games for Detroit, averaging 5.7 ppg, and 34 games for Cincinnati the next season before his career was over at the age of 27; Loughery would play nine more seasons and finish with a career average of 18.8 ppg.]

Of course, sophomore sensation, Dischinger, continued to bring it by being the Bullets' second leading scorer with 20.8 per. Bellamy's numbers stayed relatively consistent finishing within top 5 in the league in scoring (5th - 27.0), rebounding (4th - 17.0), shooting (3rd - 51.3%), and minutes played (4th - 3394). "Bells" playing in all 80 games on his way to being a three-time All-Star. The franchise continued to improve, finishing 31-49, then good for 3rd worst in the league.

A block-buster trade was made before the '64-65 season, getting Bellamy some much needed help. Dischinger, Thorn and Don Kojis were sent to Detroit in exchange for Bailey Howell, Don Ohl, Bob Ferry, and Wally Jones. Bellamy continued to put up big numbers with 24.8 ppg, 14.6 rpg, and 50.9% FG% on the way to his 4th straight All-Star appearance. Fellow All-Stars Gus Johnson and Ohl helped take pressure off Bellamy, and Bailey Howell was no slouch, averaging 19.2 ppg and 10.9 rpg.

In mid-November of '64, the Honeycomb and Bells show would net 40 points each (Johnson actually had 41), becoming the first pair of NBA teammates to do so. Just over two weeks later, Bellamy would pull down a franchise record 37 rebounds against the St. Louis Hawks.

Despite a 37-45 record, the Bullets would finish 3rd in the West and make the playoffs for the first time in team history. In the first round, Baltimore would upset a 45-35 St. Louis team 3 games to 1, stealing the first game in St. Louis and taking games 3 and 4 in Baltimore. In the next round, the Bullets would go down to the LA Lakers, 4 games to 2, coming up short by an average margin of 4.75 points in the four losses.

Along came '65-66, and along came a 2-8 start. Feeling the need to retool, the Bullets traded their superstar, Bellamy, to the New York Knicks for Jim Barnes, Johnny Green, and Johnny Egan. The team would rebound to finish 38-42 and make the playoffs, but the greatest player in the first four years of the franchise was gone.

Walt Bellamy would go on to have a Hall of Fame NBA career (elected in '93), playing for New York, Detroit, Atlanta, and New Orleans. He amassed 20,941 points and 14,241 rebounds with career averages of 20.1 and 13.7 respectively. However, after leaving the Bullets, he would not make it back to the All-Star game, and just wasn't the same prolific player as his scoring average and PER would never match the levels he achieved with the franchise.

The best years of his career as an agile and dominant big man came while he was a Packer, Zephyr, and later a Bullet in the initial four seasons of the franchise we love today. And that's why Walt Bellamy is Bullets Forever great number six.

Walt Bellamy ,NBA Hall Of Famer, Talks Basketball (via HerbertDennard)

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